The migration of myogenic precursors to the vertebrate limb exemplifies a common problem in development - namely, how migratory cells that are committed to a specific lineage postpone terminal differentiation until they reach their destination. Here we show that in chicken embryos, expression of the Msx1 homeobox gene overlaps with Pax3 in migrating limb muscle precursors, which are committed myoblasts that do not express myogenic differentiation genes such as MyoD. We find that ectopic expression of Msx1 in the forelimb and somites of chicken embryos inhibits MyoD expression as well as muscle differentiation. Conversely, ectopic expression of Pax3 activates MyoD expression, while co-ectopic expression of Msx1 and Pax3 neutralizes their effects on MyoD. Moreover, we find that Msx1 represses and Pax3 activates MyoD regulatory elements in cell culture, while in combination, Msx1 and Pax3 oppose each other's trancriptional actions on MyoD. Finally, we show that the Msx1 protein interacts with Pax3 in vitro, thereby inhibiting DNA binding by Pax3. Thus, we propose that Msx1 antagonizes the myogenic activity of Pax3 in migrating limb muscle precursors via direct protein-protein interaction. Our results implicate functional antagonism through competitive protein-protein interactions as a mechanism for regulating the differentiation state of migrating cells.
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